Sunday, June 18, 2006

Gay marriage, politics, and meaning

Here we are again near an election, and thus here we are talking about the issue of gay marriage. Republican rabble rousers in congress view this as their ace in the hole. People tend to get pretty emotionally involved in the issue, and this draws more prudes out to the polls. And, of course, prudes vote republican.

But "prudery" is too simplistic an explanation for the majorities in states across the country that voted in 2004 to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples. Gay marriage is a new idea for many people, one that challenges - perhaps even ‘attacks’ - some fundamental beliefs and values they hold. It is, thus, not surprising that they sometimes react emotionally with discomfort, disgust, fear, and even outrage. And they are entitled, I suppose. Emotional reactions, however, rarely make good policy, particularly in this cynical age.

Republican legislators (following the lead of George Bush and his Washington buddies) have recklessly fanned these phantom flames into political hoopla; in their attempts to pretend they have something in common with their constituents, they have declared their intention to “protect marriage.” To do so, they have gone to the extraordinary lengths of campaigning for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as man-woman, and specifically disallowing any legal similarities with non-married partnerships. Why a law? Because it is the only tool in their irrelevant toolbox. But even those who feel strongly that same-sex couples not marry should not support a law to ban it.

Amid all the posturing, grandstanding and exploiting of emotions, I have yet to hear anyone in power say anything practical about this issue. I ask this simple question of those of you who currently support these legislators: What, in concrete terms, would you ask the government to do in the name of the “protection” of marriage? As I see it, ‘marriage’ is three things, only one of which is any of the legislature’s business.

First, it’s a state of mind. By getting married, we proclaim our commitment to ourselves, our partner, and all our friends and family. It implies devotion, responsibility, and enduring love. Gay couples have been doing this for a long time, and their friends and family have long acknowledged their marriage. If you abhor the "idea" of gay marriage, you are, of course, individually free not to recognize someone's marriage, but the government simply has no jurisdiction over what a couple feels or believes. There are no legal means to outlaw this state of mind: no constitutional amendment or law can ever stop anyone from feeling or believing they are married and acting in accordance. Thus, if this is the point of friction, no legal or political solution is posible.

Second, it’s a religious institution. All churches typically sanctify some kinds of marriages, and abhor others. But, happily, in our country, the government does not prefer any one religion’s ideas to another’s. We all have the freedom to perform whatever religious rituals or ceremonies we want to, and that is a matter between our church, our God, and ourselves. There are today churches that will and that do sanctify marriages between homosexuals: they conduct ceremonies, bless intentions, and pronounce the participants married. The politicialns (and the rest of us) will not – should not - can not - prevent it. It’s Amendment #1 – the freedom of religion. So, obviously, this isn’t what gay marriage prohibitionists are talking about, either.

Third, and most germane to this discussion, marriage is a contract with the state. We get a marriage license from Arizona, and that entitles us to a legal status and a number of perks. Apparently, this is what the brouhaha is all about. When any “protection of marriage” legislation does pass, the result is not fewer gay couples, fewer loving commitments, or less gay sex; the result is only the withholding of certain concrete legal conveniences to gay couples.

So…I ask again: exactly which state-given benefit must be saved at all costs from the non-heterosexual? The right to visit a partner in the hospital? To file a joint tax return? To inherit without a will? To make medical decisions for each other? To jointly adopt? Which of these rights/privileges is at issue…which is the right you feel so deeply belongs, by nature, exclusively to heterosexuals? My guess is that none of these are really the issue in good people’s minds.

My own conclusion is that this ‘debate’ is really a social-linguistic debate, not a legal or political one - it isn’t about the legal reality of marriage at all. It’s a proprietary argument about the very word “marriage.” Conservatives are in essence saying, “It’s my word – it applies to my relationship - and you can’t use it!” But - it must be clear by now -such concerns can never be really addressed by governmental action. Congress simply has no power to legislate the meanings of living words. Partisans should be calling their local dictionary, not their local representatives. Why not a constitutional amendment to restrict the use of "uncle" to referring only to the brother of one's parent (or the husband of one's aunt), rather than just a family friend? Or a law that distinguishes between shoes and sandals? These are issues that are up to Webster and to each of us in our own lives and our own communities.

So, here we are. A proposal has been made to address a social concern with entirely inappropriate – and potentially extremely harmful – remedy. There’s lots of rhetoric and bombast, and plenty of hot air and smoke. People argue about what marriage "is", and try not to let their fear and disgust of homosexuality show through on tv. And nobody– not our pundits, not our state legislators, and not our president – is saying anything relevant to the actual proposed legislation. I wonder why that is. I guess you score more political points through simplistic, hot-button proclamations and mean-spirited, exclusionary lawmaking than by actually doing something.


At 4:57 PM, Blogger The Aggressive Progressive said...

That's an excellent analysis of what's really at stake in the gay marriage debate. It does raise the question of why the state is in the business of marriage at all. Some argue that the state should grant only civil unions (or something along those lines) and let the religious institutions squabble about who should and should not get "married". One last point. You seem fairly convinced that raising the whoop and cry over gay marriage will actually work for the republicans. But the gay marriage issue pales in comparison to the salience of the immigration issue, Iraq, and the skyrocketing cost of living. The republicans risk looking even more out of touch than they already do by thumping on the gay marriage issue.


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